Have you heard of the project Gutenberg? Their website http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Main_Page has a collection of more than 20,000 free ebooks. These are books whose copy right has expired (more than 50 years old) and books which do not have copy right ie those which are freely available on the web. The project is named after the first printing press that was invented.
They have some really amazing books and today I thought I will review one book which I read from their collection – Cleopatra by Jacob Abbott. I read somewhere that if Cleopatra’s nose was shorter by an inch then the history of the world would have been different. This book beautifully captures the circumstances that made her the women she was. Abbott says “Her character and action are marked by the genius, the courage, the originality, and the impulsiveness pertaining to the stock from which she sprung (she was of Greek descent although Egyptian by birth). The events of her history, on the other hand, and the peculiar character of her adventures, her sufferings, and her sins, were determined by the circumstances with which she was surrounded”.
The book describes why Egypt is considered one of the most remarkable countries in the globe. Because of its extraordinary geography “Egypt has been occupied by man from the most remote antiquity. The oldest records of the human race, made three thousand years ago, speak of Egypt as ancient then, when they were written.”
The book goes on to describe the dynasty of the Ptolemies to which Cleopatra belonged. It is to Ptolemy of this dynasty that we owe the famous Alexandrian library. It is however sad that a Dynasty which was founded by such a visionary produced decedents who were the most abominable and terrible tyrants that the principle of absolute and irresponsible power ever produced. Their most terrible vice was that of incest. What follows is a gory tale of deception, conspiracy, fathers marrying their daughters and murdering their own sons for power. When you read her history you come to understand why Cleopatra turned out to be such a ruthless and cold blooded person. It was just a matter of survival.
Abott goes on describe how Cleopatra rose to power and how she controlled the two most powerful men of her time with her razor sharp mind, ruthlessness and breath taking beauty. Julies Caesar, being a strong personality himself could hold out to her. What she did to Mark Antony was quite a different story. Antony, neither had the genius nor the grit of Ceaser and completely succumbed to Cleopatra’s charms. She manipulated him and led him to his final defeat and death.
Let me tell you about the character I liked best in this book, Ptolemy Philadelphus one of the most illustrious members of this otherwise morally fallen line. He was interested in collecting books for the Alexandrian Library and wanted it to have a complete collection of all the books in the world. He employed scholars to read and study, and travelers to make extensive tours, for the purpose of learning what books existed among all the surrounding nations; and, when he learned of their existence, he spared no pains or expense in attempting to procure either the originals themselves, or the most perfect and authentic copies of them. He heard about the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament which the Jews had .They were then wholly unknown to all nations except the Jews, and among the Jews were known only to priests and scholars. The Jews would have considered them as profaned in being exhibited to the view of pagan nations. Ptolemy very naturally thought that a copy of these sacred books would be a great acquisition to his library.
In those days many Jews were bought as captives to Egypt and sold as slaves. Ptolomy thought that the best way to please these Jewish priest would be to release the slaves. After releasing them and sending them back to Jerusalem, he sent a respectful letter to the highest priests with many magnificent gifts with a request for the copy of their book. The priest not only made a splendid copy of the book in golden letters they also sent scholars proficient in Greek and Hebrew who translated the book. Thus this holy book found it’s way into the Alexandrian library.
As a book lover, I felt a kinship for Ptolemy Philadelphus who went to such great lengths not to for more power and wealth but for procuring a rare book. I shed tears when the book described how the library was destroyed in a war. It is one of my fond dreams to visit this library. For people who worship books, it would be nothing short of a pilgrimage.